"Get your butt out of here!" he shouts, shooing her away. Tail and tongue flopping and flapping, Morgana heads over to one of Duke's guests. "Aw, go ahead and pet her now," Duke says.
Inside the dimly lighted Florida room of his rustic home off Davie Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, the Rev. Red Duke is holding one of his Sunday-night sessions. For almost 30 years, Duke has been hosting gatherings at the Haven for Spiritual Travelers, his home transformed into a metaphysical meeting point marked by twin beacon-bulbs mounted on 30-foot poles. Nowadays, his 77-year-old frame is wracked with pain, he's going deaf in one ear, and his forays into psychic phenomena, he reports, often leave him drained.
During his once-a-week readings, patrons deposit a donation ("Five or ten dollars, the cost of a movie") in an envelope and write their names and a question on the front.
Duke opens the tackle box, takes out one of these envelopes, and starts.
"OK, so the first one we come to is Michelle." Michelle is a pretty, young black woman with wide-set eyes and long straight hair.
"I'm gonna ask you a question," Duke continues. "Would there be a James around you? James or Jane? Could be either one."
"No," Michelle answers.
"Not yet," Duke corrects. "Write it down. 'Cause everything we say is gonna happen within three months, OK? Ninety days."
He closes his eyes for several long seconds. "I'm getting a vibration from the west coast of Florida -- I don't know why. But I feel some kind of connection over in that area. West Coast?" he asks Michelle. "OK?"
She shakes her head.
Duke again shuts his eyes.
"You asked something about school. Right now, we don't see anything happening at school. It may come later. But the second thing, the financial? We see that increasing, if you understand what I'm saying. OK? But at this moment, the school doesn't have a vibration. It can change."
"You're going on a trip shortly too -- did you know that?"
"No," says Michelle, confident.
"Well, you're gonna find out!" Duke says with a hearty knee-slap. "So don't worry about school, at least not this time. That's all I can say, alrighty?"
If the Rev. Duke is floundering more than usual today, no one lets on. The ancient tricks of his trade (isn't everybody going on a trip or going to meet somebody named James or Jane in the next three months?) evoke no discernible skepticism. In three decades as a psychic and soothsayer, Duke has honed a homey, easygoing style that makes up in familial warmth what it lacks in visionary precision. An evening of riding spiritual waves seems more of a social activity than anything to do with mysterious forces and predictions of the future.
Still, when challenged, Duke concedes nothing in the psychic-powers department. He has stories to tell. He's a psychic of the old school, a kind of Jeane Dixon for the local crowd, employing all the staples of his often-maligned profession. He tells tales of sightings of "ectoplasm" (the alleged substance of spirits and ghosts), of channeling people from beyond the grave, and of moving solid objects with mind waves.
Duke, who has led an exceedingly eventful life, has even had his moments of stunning triumph -- notably when he correctly predicted, in the presence of a Sun-Sentinel columnist, the choice of a very dark horse Dan Quayle to be George Bush Sr.'s running mate in 1992. But witnesses to true miracles are few and far between, and Duke is careful not to make too many claims he can't back up.
Asked if he can demonstrate his powers using only psychic energy to move a piece of furniture or push a coffee cup off a table, Duke shakes his head impatiently.
"We stopped doing parlor tricks a long time ago," he says scornfully.
Over the course of several weeks, this New Times writer detected no cracks in the hillbilly nobleman's façade of assurance in the face of invisible forces; Duke is an engaging performer. Even so, a once-loyal flock of believers and acolytes has largely scattered, leaving the reverend questioning whether he'll remain in business at the Haven for long. How long can an old séance-leading sharpie like Duke hold out in the face of mass-marketed spiritualists like Tony Robbins and of excoriating skepticism on demand from the Internet?